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What should we eat in the presence of low iron levels: a handbook against deficiencies

How to combat stress and fatigue

The health benefits of iron are well known: indeed this mineral plays a central role in the haemoglobin of red blood cells, participating in the transport of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Iron is also a fundamental part of the key enzymes in energy production and metabolism. A deficiency may, therefore, be very harmful for the body; besides promoting chronic fatigue, it can also lay the foundations for the development of serious disorders, such as iron deficiency anaemia. So, what can we do to prevent iron deficiency? What should we eat in case of iron deficiency? In this article, we will try to provide some helpful eating tips, to make correct and informed decisions to better address iron deficiency.

Low iron symptoms

A deficiency of iron, especially if protracted for a long time, can cause the onset of different types of problems such as, for example:

  • paleness of the skin, observable also in certain mucous membranes;
  • brittle nails;
  • fine and sparse hair;
  • anaemia and weakness;
  • burn-out;
  • mental confusion and so on.

Not only that! Several researchers have shown that even a slight anaemia, due to iron deficiency, can result in a reduction of work capacity and productivity.

Are you anaemic? Check your haemoglobin level in blood

To determine with certainty whether you are suffering from anaemia caused by iron deficiency you should undergo a blood test.
Indeed, the detected haemoglobin levels will be able to indicate the possible presence of anaemia and its severity. According to the data provided by WHO, you can already speak of anaemia with haemoglobin levels lower than 130 g / l in men and 120 g / l in women (110 g / l in pregnant women).

Prevention, assessement and control

Diets suitable for people with anaemia: 5 rules to avoid mistakes

According to a research carried out by WHO, iron deficiency anaemia is one of the most common ailments in the world: as a matter of fact it affects more than 30% of the world population. The causes of iron deficiency may be different (pregnancy, malnutrition, medication intake or malabsorption etc.) and should always be studied with a specialist. For additional information on the most common causes, you can read this article.  

Micronutrient deficiencies

An unbalanced diet, however, is often the basic cause of this problem: as shown in a contribution on the site of the Veronesi Foundation, 50% of cases in Italy is precisely due to an unbalanced diet.

Heme and non-heme iron: do you know the difference?

It is important to remember that there are two kinds of dietary iron: heme, which is found in foods of animal source and easily absorbed by the body; non-heme, which is found primarily in plants and is assimilated to a lesser extent than the first.

As recalled by Umberto Veronesi and Mario Pappagallo's book, The secrets for a long life, one should remember that, unlike heme-iron (which is absorbed directly by the intestine), non-heme iron absorption is  increased markedly by eating foods containing vitamin C and B!

That is why, for example, you should always consume spinach with a squeeze of lemon!

YES/NO foods and right combinations

To prevent iron deficiency, or to take remedial action, it is first necessary to correct your diet.

We recall that, in addition to iron, folic acid and vitamin B12 also play an important role in the formation of red blood cells. Your diet needs to contain good amounts of all these nutrients.

Let's have a look now at a few dietary rules to follow, the foods rich in iron and those that, instead, might limit its absorption.

1) Meat and fish

Meat in general is an excellent source of heme-iron and vitamin B12. If you are not vegetarian or vegan, you should add a few meat dishes to your diet. The richest animal sources include liver and offal in general, chicken pate, clams. However fish like cod, tuna or salmon can also fit.

As for meat, you should choose lean cuts or cuts devoid of fat.

2) Combine vegetables with vitamin C or meat

Vegetables also contain iron, although in a form that can be difficult to assimilate. Among the most rich in iron are peppers, spinach and zucchini blossoms.

To facilitate the assimilation you should combine vegetables with protein-rich foods like meat; this is because cysteine, contained in meat, increases the absorption of non-heme iron found in plants.

A good alternative is to combine these vegetables with other ones rich in vitamin C (citrus fruits, cabbage, peppers, lettuce and so on.)

3) If you are vegetarian, you should consume many legumes

Even legumes are excellent sources of iron (as well as of folic acid). Although the iron contained in legumes can be less assimilated than that found in meat, their frequent consumption can be a viable alternative.

Among the richest we remember lentils, dry beans, chickpeas and broad beans.

4) Do not consume too much dairy protein

Those who have problems absorbing iron and are prone to deficiencies should limit the consumption of dairy products. Milk and its derivatives, indeed, are foods rich in calcium, a mineral that prevents the intestinal absorption of iron.

It is not necessary to eliminate these foods, but it is good to consume them in moderation; in particular, it is advisable to avoid combining dairy foods and foods rich in iron within the same meal.

5) Limit dietary fibre intake

The right amount of fibre certainly ensures many benefits to our body. However, do not overdo and do not exceed 20/35 I of fibre per day.

Whole grains, bran and, in general, all the fibres or products containing them, indeed reduce the absorption of iron and other nutrients such as vitamins in the intestine.

6) Use herbs

Another "trick" to add iron to your diet is flavouring foods with herbs.

Among the herbs with higher iron content are: thyme, basil, mint, marjoram, oregano and rosemary.

This will also make it possible to reduce salt, with co-benefits for health!

7) Limit tea, coffee and wine

The high content of tannins of tea, coffee and wine reduce the absorption of iron.

For this reason, it would be good to limit their consumption. As with everything, "virtue stands in the middle": it is not necessary to remove them completely, but it is advisable to reduce them as much as possible and avoid excesses.

What if food alone is not enough?

After answering the original question - "What should we eat in the presence of low iron levels"? - let's try to figure out how to behave when food alone is not enough.

It may happen that a diet, no matter how proper, is not sufficient to correct too low levels of iron in the blood. There are several factors that may increase your risk for developing this problem, for example, intake of drugs or specific diseases such as coeliac disease.

It being understood that when there are serious iron deficiencies, you should always consult your doctor, extra help can come from specific supplements, highly concentrated in iron; the most complete products are those fortified with vitamin B12 and folic acid, important nutrients for the formation of red blood cells.


Iron overdose in adults is quite rare, apart from the presence of specific diseases (such as haemochromatosis).

The Italian Ministry of Health has nevertheless concluded that the maximum daily intake of iron provided by a food supplement should be equal to 30 mg.

Let's remember that taking iron supplements without having a real need (or exceeding dosage) can facilitate nausea, dark stools, mild abdominal pain.

Therefore it is always good to stick to the recommended dosages and, in case of prolonged treatment, consult a specialist.

Remember that smoking also interferes with the absorption of iron. Those with iron deficiency should, therefore, quit smoking: it will help not only the level of iron, but also the overall health


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